Night falls by the time the teens reach the river where they’d planned to meet with an ally who’d told them they had a way of crossing the unofficial territory border without being detected.
Night falls, and so does Enzo.
He stumbles and tilts with a soft exhale, landing on the unyielding forest floor with the mutest thump known to the history of sound. If Moxie hadn’t been holding his hand, she might not even have noticed him falling in the first place, but since she is, she wobbles and barely avoids joining him.
“What happened?” Xnij asks, concern as clear as day in their voice.
Enzo just shakes his head, glances behind them, and mutters: “Go forward…”
“…do not stray,” a cool voice finishes, Ren then stepping out of the shadows with a relieved smile on their face, offering a hand to Enzo, who gratefully takes it and pulls himself back upright.
Moxie automatically tightens her grip on his hand, then glances over to Ren sadly, knowing they’re more or less broken up with their partner and this must be a painful reminder for them right now.
Ren just smiles. “I’m pretty sure they still have love for me…” they say rather sadly.
“But if you cannot see it, is it really there?” Xnij asks, sounding both pained and sympathetic.
Saving Ren from awkwardly answering, Enzo stumbles again, crashing into Moxie with a frown, pulling his hand from her grip and using his right one to grasp his left wrist. The other three look to him immediately, Ren putting a hand on his shoulder. “Who is it?”
“Back… a month ago- I can’t…” Enzo looks up at Moxie with doubt and guilt in his eyes.
She knows how hard this is for him so she only smiles reassuringly, wishing she could help. “Remember?” she offers, then whispers: “You have to remember.”
Subtly standing as close to Enzo as possible, Xnij takes his left hand and closes their eyes, humming softly, rocking side to side before sharing a look with Moxie and nodding firmly. “I see it.”
Ren raises a questioning eyebrow, probably asking how on earth Xnij saw something in Enzo’s pulse, especially when they had their eyes closed. They’re good at magic, but magic can’t suddenly alter the foundations of common sense, no matter what anyone says.
Somehow understanding the unspoken inquisition, Xnij says: “I felt it… you know what I mean!” and waves a hand as if everything in the world is now irrelevant, the frequency of Enzo’s pulse taking priority over all else.
“It’s the captain of the soldier troop from the bakery,” Xnij clarifies, causing both Moxie and Ren to groan in annoyance, Moxie then fiddling with her nails as she considers this.
It means they have an incredibly limited number of options; they can’t go back if they’re being tracked and they can’t take any of the safe routes since the captain being involved means guards stationed at every bridge and gate and known entrance to the next territory.
“We can always swim?” Moxie suggests, then blushes under the scepticism in Ren’s gaze.
“Wet clothes will drip and leave a trail that we won’t have the forest to cover up with,” Enzo breathes, still a little out of it but obviously having recovered enough to think straight.
Ren’s eyebrows furrow as they seem to recall something. “You can use the tunnels, nobody else knows about those yet…”
It doesn’t take the three of them long to agree with that plan, already mentally preparing themselves for the trek. Xnij grins at them once it’s wordlessly settled. “At least it can’t get any worse!”
Branches, frozen leaves, and acorn shells start to snap in a steady rhythm behind them, almost as if a herd of horses had suddenly been released after being kept immobile for a year.
Within seconds, Ren has tensed, looking around, scanning the area, Enzo now, due to the warnings sparking in his blood, half-leaning on Moxie, who worriedly wraps an arm around his middle, sighing.
They hope they’re wrong and their suspicions are actually based on mere coincidence for once but the snappings continue, only getting louder as they go on, meaning that they have to either figure out how to vanish from thin air or they’ll have to face another confrontation.
Moxie bites her lip, flinching as the distinct echo of a horse neighing from somewhere far too close hits their ears. “Do we really have to do this again?”
“They just don’t give up,” Xnij mutters as they step in front of the other two protectively, ready to pull up a shield or settle into their familiar pattern of battle once more if necessary.
“We need to go,” Enzo says, clearing his throat and taking a breath before turning to Ren – also known as their geographical encyclopedia – and asking: “Where’s the nearest tunnel entrance?”
After exactly a couple of second, Ren nods their head to the left, their hair flying up from the intensity of the action before settling over their eye once more. “About fifty yards that way. But you still won’t make it if they have their steeds with them… Unless…”
“No.” Xnij and Moxie reply simultaneously, already having clocked the nature of their terribly risky plan.
“We all know that playing the distraction card is the only way you three will cross the border,” Ren tells them as if they’re talking about simple addition, sending them all pointed looks.
Enzo exhales audibly, reaching out and finding Ren’s hand. “Are you sure you want to do this?”
“Are you kidding?” Ren replies, giving Enzo’s hand a small squeeze before pulling out a small piece of paper and handing it to Moxie, who nods at him thankfully, respectfully.
There’s a moment where the four of them share a tense silence, knowing their reunion is about as certain as determining which side a forty-sided dice will land on when flipped a second time. The interruption follows a moment later, yet another succession of snapping noises that causes them to take a deep breath and place their trust in the universe.
Winking, Ren declares: “I’ve waited so long for this,” before practically melting into the shadows, leaving the three outlaws to leave them behind without any further doubts.
With no other option, they go, Enzo more or less fully supported only by the other two, Moxie following the tiny map Ren had given her to locate the correct entrance, all of them glancing back to nowhere in particular and whispering their shared gratitude to the ever-listening air before vanishing into the tunnels, the sound of breaking nature replaced by a heavy blanket of silence and wistful courage.